Optimizing Existing Resources in Education to Find Stability in the Middle East: An Opinion

Sep 12th, 2017 | By | Category: News, News and Events, Opinion
Print Friendly
thumbnail of Tamara Zuniga-Brown

Tamara Zuñiga-Brown


—In the piece that follows, a version of which was published as a special report to the National Security Forum of Northern Nevada (NSF), I discuss the power of the ESL/ELC (English Language and Culture) profession to build international bridges of peace and cross-cultural understanding, this time on the ground in Iraq.

I have had the honor of helping the Chaldean Archbishop Matti Warda establish the English language preparatory year at the first Catholic University of Erbil (CUE) in Iraqi Kurdistan for its first accredited semester. The doors of CUE are open to all, as the archbishop’s goal is to counter ISIS through education—in English.

Most important, this message speaks volumes for the work of ESL/ELC professionals, and the unique opportunities we have to affect US public diplomacy as the critical first lines of linguistic and acculturation processes that so deeply underpin our profession.

Editor’s Note: The original article appeared in the NSF newsletter (June 1, 2017): http://www.nationalsecurityforum.org/page/4/

Education can, and should be, used as a powerful tool of public diplomacy to mitigate the increasing instability in the Middle East. The capability to clearly identify and engage existing resources within the vast field of education already deeply engaged in these processes would be a game changer. I know, because I’ve been doing just that as an English Language and Culture (ELC) professional to foreign students in higher education gateway programs. Having been directly involved in shaping hundreds of young Saudi/Middle Eastern students’ hearts and minds for almost a decade in my classroom in the US taught me this can be done. Now that I am a part of the efforts of the Catholic Chaldean Archbishop Matti Warda in Iraq to bring hope through education by establishing the first Catholic University in Erbil (CUE) for all Iraqi youth, regardless of religion, gender, or ethnicity, to counter the savage brutality and twisted ideologies of ISIS, I am thoroughly convinced.

But first, to successfully optimize the unique skill-set of ELC educators and decisively bring them into existing practices as longer-term, lower-cost, higher-yield sustainable resources in our quest for stability, a deeper understanding of the complex dynamics is merited.

A Brief Understanding About the Efforts at CUE

At one time, nearly 5 million Assyrian/Chaldean Christians lived in Iraq as a healthy minority. August 2014 witnessed the numbers of Christians in Iraq precipitously decline from as many as 1.5 million a decade ago to approximately 150,000 today, when roughly 125,000 persecuted Chaldean and Assyrian Christians fled from ISIS and from their homes on the Nineveh Plains. During the course of a few days, they flooded into Ankawa, the Christian section of the city of Erbil. Archbishop Warda, his exceptional staff, and the Kurdish Regional Government took them all in.

But rather than retreating from ISIS and building walls of fear and isolation, Archbishop Warda resolved to build walls of hope based on the belief that “Illiteracy and ignorance are the most dangerous long-term enemy we face in the Middle East.” So, in collaboration with the Italian Archbishops Conference and multiple NGOs, the archbishop built a Catholic university in the middle of the chaos of war.

At the core of the groundwork being laid out at CUE is a strategic leveraging of the social, cultural, and economic value of an education in English language and culture. The archbishop’s vision is predicated on three pivotal facts:

  1. Using the learning of English as a critical asset in today’s rapidly globalizing world because it is the recognized sine qua non, or key to success for social and economic stability.
  2. Recognizing that optimizing an educational setting by opening it to all youth fosters the social cohesion required to counter extremist ideologies and rebuild a fractured society.
  3. Understanding that the evolution inherent in acquiring knowledge and learning critical thinking through participatory education directly shapes beliefs and changes behaviors, hearts, and minds.

Connecting It From a Brief Academic Perspective

Language is our most basic means of communication and is predicated on the creation of a “social contract.” The variables of religion, economics, politics, gender, and ethnicity are highly complex, but Dr. Ami Carpenter, a leading researcher in the field of conflict resolution, community resilience, and countering violent extremism in communities in Baghdad and Guatemala, condenses these. In short, a social contract is defined as a function of intensity and frequency of contact. One of the objectives of reducing conflict and building community resilience is to foster and sustain positive community interaction between people by first building trust. Equally as important in generating much-needed participatory citizenship within a larger community is an understanding that productive social contacts are also highly dependent on ensuring a sense of “geospatial awareness,” or a sense of physical belonging. Identifying, supporting, and effectively communicating with key leaders in the community allows for a greater capability to navigate divisions and facilitate the reinforcement of positive, fluid community identities at an individual, then to a wider communal level. Multiple research documents this as the groundwork needed to lead to the construction of greater social cohesion and longer-term stability in communities. The same principles apply in pedagogical processes to ensure solid learning, critical thinking, and behavioral growth.

The well-documented and historical phenomenon of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP) is an example of this. At $6 billion per year, Saudi Arabia has been investing considerable resources to build an educational infrastructure through instruction in the English language. Since the inception of the KASP in 2005, hundreds of thousands of young Saudi students have come to anchor their lives with America as ambassadors of their country, their religion, and their values. Last year alone, more than 110,000 studied in intensive English language and culture programs, making the KASP indeed “the largest human capital development initiative in history.” Remarkably, a full 23% of KASP students are women—powerful symbols of rapidly shifting social and cultural norms. With Saudi women voting and holding positions in municipalities for the first time in history, it is not difficult to see why the KASP has been declared “a positive force that will inevitably catalyze change.”

A Brief Understanding of Existing Resources

In essence, the field of intensive English Language and Culture education provides an unequaled pool of social and cultural capital. It is a natural platform where professional educators engage as long-term critical first lines of linguistic and acculturation processes. Thousands serve as highly skilled social-cultural engineers and public diplomats fostering essential cross-cultural communication, shattering distorted stereotypes of each other, and promoting greater and deeper understanding in the complex and transformative processes of community building. Classrooms are readily available, nonthreatening, communicative environments that serve as exponential force multipliers of good, because they are rooted in developing mutually beneficial consensus to encourage effective learning.

Engaging in the field of social sciences to mitigate conflict through education is not a new concept. There are examples of innovative collaborative programs here in the US. For example, at the beginning of the 2003 surge into Iraq, the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, implemented an initiative in which anthropologists taught operational culture to Marines to better inform decision making on the ground. The objective was for troops to understand local culture well enough to build cooperative relationships. The goal was mission effectiveness. Another example took place in 2009 when the FBI teamed up with a San Francisco community to build social and cultural bridges. They created the “Junior Agents” program and offered a special partnership for fifth graders in an Arabic/English dual-language immersion school. Premise: The capability of leveraging the power of language and culture using a collaborative, participatory approach in the classroom is pivotal in creating more stable communities.

Understanding Our Existing Academic Situation

However, to optimize this cadre of professionals as critical resources we must first understand the current crisis in higher education. According to a January 2014 Congressional report and an April 2015 UC Berkeley Labor Center report, 75.5% of educators are a part-time instruction workforce that live at or below the poverty line, live on par with fast-food workers, child-care and home-care providers, and earn a median salary of $22,041. The cost to the taxpaying public to subsidize them is $468 million per year.

The situation for ELC professionals is even more alarming because of hierarchical university structures. Subsequently, ELC programs are run separately from the university body and are beholden to independent governance and resource allocation. Consequently, these programs stand at a severe financial and social disadvantage relative to other faculties, rendering opportunities to nurture the construction of mutually beneficial bridges of cross-cultural understanding and invaluable participation in local and global community-building processes inconsequential.

Optimizing Existing Resources to Level the Field

With fast-moving executive orders shifting as quickly as the sands in the Middle East and the increasingly exorbitant cost of military and diplomatic interventions, we should be challenged to effectively harness and mobilize the power of the human capital readily available in the ELC profession. We could choose to strategically optimize our existing resources and effect a more sustainable long-term solution to provide the academic and cultural tools needed, not only to plant and engineer the seeds from which tomorrow’s social, cultural, political, and economic networks will grow, but from which tomorrow’s key group of future global stakeholders and resilient collaborative community leaders in the Middle East will emerge and flourish and create greater stability.

In light of the tenuous state of global affairs and the crisis of global terror, what price are we willing to continue to pay? Too much blood has been shed for the hard-fought battles of democracy, equality, and peace. I have seen the devastating results in Iraq. But I am also witnessing the efforts to engage ELC education as a critical resource in the quest for greater peace and stability in the Middle East serve as a powerful tool in changing hearts and minds.

The ability to prioritize the nation’s focus and act immediately amid so many other competing agendas to sustain a lasting systemic change for stability in the Middle East is critical. While counterterrorism organizations, and military and diplomatic bureaucracies, are focused on using their unique set of skill sets to train, assist, and provide advisory support to coalition forces on the ground in the war against global terror, we have the capability to step up to the plate and engage our own unique set of skills in the field of ELC education at home and abroad—whether it’s teaching Middle Eastern students in the US or Middle Eastern students in the Middle East. Bringing hope and building communities through education is an attainable universal dream. The terrain is familiar and the required infrastructure is in place. It’s a win-win and we already have what it takes to succeed. The question is: Who is willing to “do what it takes” to level the playing field and truly effect longer-term stability in the Middle East?

Tamara Zúñiga-Brown, MEd, MATESOL, teaches, volunteers, and assists as director in establishing the English Language Preparatory Department at CUE in Iraq. When not in Iraq, she is with her family in Gardnerville, Nevada, while both of her children purse academics. Tamara was raised and educated abroad in a bilingual, multicultural diplomatic family whose combined combat and professional foreign relations experience total more than 80 years (father, brother, and sister). A Navy spouse for 25 years, Tamara has more than 25 years’ experience in the field of international student education. She has presented on this topic at Stanford University and engaged with key figures at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East after earning her MATESOL degree from UNR.


More in News

More in News and Events

More in Opinion

Comments are closed.